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Alaska police should release disciplinary files, coalition argues

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  1. Freedom of Information
Brief affirms police officers’ disciplinary files should be available for public accountability.
Photo of paper files on a shelf; image Courtesy of Pixnio

Update: On April 24, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that state trooper disciplinary records are confidential as a matter of law, based on statutory interpretation.

The Reporters Committee and two local media organizations filed a brief in support of the release of disciplinary records of two Alaska law enforcement officers in response to a public records request. The requester, inmate Kaleb Lee Basey, argues that the files are subject to disclosure under Alaska’s Public Records Act, but the Alaska State Police are pushing back, claiming they may keep the documents confidential because they are “personnel records.”

The case is currently before Alaska’s Supreme Court, which invited the Reporters Committee, Gray Television and the Anchorage Daily News to submit a friend-of-the-court brief in the matter. In the brief, filed on May 31, the coalition emphasizes that both the public and the press must be able to access officers’ disciplinary files to report on important issues such as potential police misconduct.

“State troopers are public employees paid by public dollars to protect and serve the public,” attorneys for the media coalition argue, explaining that the public has an obvious interest in overseeing the department’s official actions to ensure any discipline of the officers’ is fair and just.

In the brief, the media coalition notes that under the State Personnel Act, disciplinary records would not be categorized as confidential personnel material and therefore shouldn’t be withheld from public disclosure. Other Alaskan government agencies proactively publish disciplinary information online, suggesting that it is not considered private information.

“Disciplinary records that do not reveal the details of an individual’s personal life or reveal personal details irrelevant to their job performance simply are not ‘personnel records’ under the State Personnel Act,” the brief reads.

The media coalition also argues that the state employees’ right to privacy under the Alaska Constitution does prevent public release of the records. Under Alaska precedent, the court would have to apply a multi-part legal test to determine whether the state troopers are justified in withholding the records on constitutional privacy grounds. That test would surely result in the documents’ disclosure because of the “compelling state interest” — exposing the truth about a matter of public concern — in releasing the information, according to the media coalition.

A long case history precedes Basey’s battle for the Alaska State Troopers to fulfill his records requests. In December 2014, following a joint investigation by the state troopers and the local criminal investigation division, a grand jury indicted Basey on criminal counts. Just over one year later, Basey filed a civil rights lawsuit against state trooper officers and others, alleging misconduct in the course of their investigation. The records Basey sought relate to the state trooper officers that Basey named in the civil case.

The Alaska State Troopers, according to the amicus brief, mistakenly claim that Basey’s status as a criminal defendant in the first case grants them the right to deny the records request. In their original letter to Basey, the Alaska State Troopers said they were denying his records request because the documents “pertain to a matter that is currently the subject of” litigation to which Basey is a party. The media coalition brief emphasizes precedent that shows that all members of the public, regardless of their relationship to the records, ought to have equal access to government materials.

“Any credence provided to the State’s argument risks severely undermining long-standing precedent in this court that the identity and motive of a public records requester is entirely irrelevant,” the brief states.

View the full brief.